Why Are So Many Election Ballots Confusing?

Nov 25, 2018
Originally published on November 24, 2018 6:30 pm

Whitney Quesenbery knows a well-designed ballot when she sees it: lower-case letters, left-aligned text, a clean sans-serif font.

Quesenbery has been assessing ballot design for nearly two decades. Los Angeles County's is one of the best she has seen.

"Look at those instructions," she says, admiring the ballot's simple wording and standout color. "They're beautiful."

A co-founder of the Center for Civic Design, Quesenbery regularly advises election boards on best practices for their ballots. Some places, like Los Angeles, have incorporated the design principles espoused by the center. But, Quesenbery says, many other counties are stuck using ballots that look as if they came out of the last century.

"There are still people voting on pre-2000 voting systems," she says. "I do."

Quesenbery is registered in Hunterdon County, N.J., which she says uses electronic voting machines over 2 decades old. Vintage machines mean vintage ballot styles. She says her ballot is wider than her two outstretched arms.

New York's election boards are similarly constrained by old technology and even older election code. The state's rules on ballot design are some of the most stringent in the country.

Quesenbery examines a ballot from Chenango County, N.Y., which has a typical layout for the state.

There are illustrated index fingers pointing toward each candidate. Beneath the fingers are tiny emblems representing each party — a star for Democrats, an eagle for Republicans, a peace sign for the Green Party. And, at the bottom of the page sit the instructions, directing voters to "mark only with a writing instrument provided by the Board of Elections."

Quesenbery says these elements are antiquated. She calls the instructions verbose, the emblems meaningless, and the finger reminiscent of "a typographic convention from the '40s."

"We need to move on," she says.

These designs do more than irk usability experts. They can cause voters to make real mistakes. The Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute, estimates tens of thousands – and in some cases hundreds of thousands – of votes are lost or miscast in election years due to poor ballot design.

Tina Oliviero designed this year's ballot in Chenango County, N.Y. She says most voters figure it out just fine, but there are always a few who struggle with the ovals.

"We do have voters that don't fill it in, and they 'x' or check," she says. "But I feel that [the instructions] make it simple and it makes it so people should know you fill the oval in and then you cast your ballot."

One problem, says Quesenbery, is that voters won't read the directions at the bottom of the page. If New York's election code allowed for it, she recommends the county condense its 276-word instructions and bump them to the top.

"The basic rule is [instructions] should be before the thing you have to do," she explains.

Quesenbery says tiny design flaws like these likely result in "little ballot errors all over the country."

This year, the errors weren't so little. New York City's voters were subject to a series of setbacks after the election board unrolled a perforated two-page ballot. Voters who didn't know they had to tear at the edges to get at the entire ballot ended up skipping the middle pages. Then the fat ballots jammed the scanners, long lines formed, and people's ballots got soaked in the rain. When voters fed the soggy ballots into scanners, more machines malfunctioned.

In Georgia, hundreds blundered on their absentee ballot, incorrectly filling out the birth date section. Counties originally threw out the ballots before a federal judge ordered they be counted.

And in Broward County, Fla., 30,000 people who voted for governor skipped the contest for U.S. Senate. The county's election board had placed that contest under a block of multi-lingual instructions, which ran halfway down the page. Quesenbery says voters scanning the instructions likely skimmed right over the race.

She has seen this design before. In 2009, King County, Wash., buried a tax initiative under a text-heavy column of instructions. An estimated 40,000 voters ended up missing the contest, leading the state to pass a bill mandating ballot directions look significantly different from the contests below.

"We know the answers," says Quesenbery. "I wish we were making new mistakes, not making the same old mistakes."

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Several of the midterm races that went into overtime this year were slowed down in part by poor ballot design. In Florida, 30,000 voters in Broward County voted for a candidate for governor but not for the Senate. That race was buried under a block of text. In Georgia, so many voters filled in their birthdate incorrectly that a federal judge ordered those ballots be counted. So what makes a good ballot design, and why is it so hard to come by? NPR's Rebecca Ellis has more.

REBECCA ELLIS, BYLINE: Whitney Quesenbery knows a well-designed ballot when she sees it - 12-point font, lower case letters, a clean sans serif font.

WHITNEY QUESENBERY: Look at these instructions, right? They're beautiful.

ELLIS: Quesenbery has been assessing ballot design for nearly two decades - first as an appointee to the Federal Election Assistance Commission, then as a co-founder of the Center for Civic design. This year, Los Angeles County's ballot was on the cutting edge. But she says other election boards still distribute ballots that look like they came out of the last century. I hand her one from Chenango County, N.Y. The layout is typical for the state, which has strict, some say dated rules on what counties can do with their ballot, like the statute requiring an illustrated index finger point toward each candidate.

QUESENBERY: It's like a typographical convention from the '40s.

ELLIS: Then there are the odd emblems used to denote each party.

QUESENBERY: Why are Democrats a star? And what is the Republican one?

ELLIS: It's an eagle. And, of course, the 276 words of instruction.

QUESENBERY: Mark only with a writing instrument provided by the Board of Elections. Who's the Board of elections? What's a writing instrument? And why?

ELLIS: Stilted language and data design isn't an issue just because it irks experts like Quesenbery. It can cause voters to make real mistakes, like the cascade of misfortunes that hit New York City this year after it unrolled its perforated, two-page ballot. Voters who didn't know you had to tear at the edges to get at the entire ballot ended up skipping the middle pages. Then the fat ballots jammed the scanners. Long lines formed. People went home. Quesenbery can add it to the list.

QUESENBERY: I have his collection of ballots, and they're basically all histories of disasters.

ELLIS: The collection dates back to 2000, when poorly designed so-called butterfly ballots in Palm Beach County, Fla. crippled the presidential election.

QUESENBERY: I suddenly realized that what was wrong was something I knew about, right, which was design.

ELLIS: At the time, Quesenbery was in the field of usability. She worked with places like Amtrak and eBay making it easier for users to buy and bid. Post-election, she pivoted exclusively to voting materials. Since then, she says she's seeing real improvement within California, Virginia, even New York. But other counties stay static, constrained by old technology, arcane laws and tradition.

TINA OLIVIERO: It's basically always stayed pretty much the same.

ELLIS: Tina Oliviero was in charge of this year's design for Chenango County, N.Y. When I gave her a call at the county's board of elections late last week, she was still tallying ballots. She says it looks like most voters have filled in the ovals just fine.

OLIVIERO: We do have voters that don't fill it in, and they X or check.

ELLIS: Quesenbery says this may be because the directions are located at the bottom of the ballot. But Oliviero says the instructions are clear.

OLIVIERO: I feel that it makes it simple, and it makes it so people should know. You fill the oval in, and then you cast your ballot.

ELLIS: The Brennan Center for Justice estimates tens of thousands of votes are lost each year to tiny mistakes like these. It's not just the voting portion of the ballot where people stumble. In several states, signatures on the ballots are supposed to match the signatures on file. If they don't, the vote gets thrown out. Here, Quesenbery prescribes a big box with an X.

QUESENBERY: That nice, big X tells you that at the end of this form, this is the thing that signs and seals it.

ELLIS: And above the box, there would be instructions.

QUESENBERY: Write within the lines. Your signature will be matched.

ELLIS: Simple - just like voting should be.

Rebecca Ellis, NPR News, Washington.

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